When I became a politician, I realised how deep the rot lies in Lebanon

My country is crippled by the disease of sectarianism, which has slowed its march towards a civic and modern form of government, writes Paula Yacoubian

Newly elected Lebanese MP Paula Yacoubian, arrives at Lebanon's parliament in the capital Beirut ahead of a session to elect a new speaker, on May 23, 2018. - Lebanon's parliament on Wednesday selected Nabih Berri for a sixth consecutive term as its speaker in their inaugural session, making him one of the longest-serving speakers in the world. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)
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Just over a year ago, I ran as an independent candidate in the Lebanese parliamentary election, the first of its kind in nearly a decade. I was elected on a civil society platform to represent Beirut's Achrafieh district, as the first independent woman in parliament who did not inherit her seat from her father, husband or through the support of her sectarian leader. Although a record 86 women ran for parliament, only six – including myself – won seats in the 128-member legislature. Even that was an improvement on the four women who won seats in the 2009 election.

Winning the seat represented a breakthrough for civil society in Lebanon and energised a base that had been demoralised after several past disappointments. Civil society activists have managed to mobilise people to protest against the government's failure in dealing with multiple issues, from proper waste disposal to economic reforms and corruption. Lebanon might be one of the first democracies in our part of the world but it is crippled by the disease of sectarianism, which has slowed its march towards a civic and modern form of government. Parliamentary seats are divided equally between Muslims and Christians. In Lebanon's confessional system, the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament is Shia. Seats in electoral districts are split proportionally. The result is a political system where sectarian leaders compete for state resources instead of collaborating for the greater good of all citizens.

Despite the fact most experts say this is not a sound solution for a country like Lebanon, some officials are driven by greed and potential kickbacks and are keen to maintain the status quo. When you run as an independent and you get elected by the people, you serve the people. But when you are selected by your sectarian leader, you serve your leader.

As the only MP on an independent electoral list, this principle has guided my legislative agenda. In a period of one year, I have introduced 30 draft laws, more than any other lawmaker, and I continue to agitate for meaningful and effective oversight of the executive branch.

Take, for example, the proposal to build six new power plants, approved by parliament in April, which aimed to bring an end to power shortages of up to 20 hours a day by boosting electricity supplies by 3,000 megawatts. The tenders for the plants should be overseen by the National Electricity Regulatory Authority – but it has yet to come into existence, despite being mandated in 2002. In its absence, the tenders were to go to the energy ministry, which was to give authorisation in collaboration with the cabinet, before referring the matter to the tenders department, with the cabinet having the final say. This raised several concerns, among them the lack of supervision or parliamentary decision-making in the tendering process and no clarity on when control of the power plants would be handed back to the state, so I, along with eight other parliamentarians, backed an appeal lodged by MP Sami Gemayel.

Then there are the controversial plans to deal with Lebanon’s rubbish disposal crisis by installing incinerators in Beirut, which brought thousands of people out onto the streets in protest. The battle is not over yet and this is another scandal in the making. I have put forward a draft law on waste management, which makes it compulsory to sort and recycle waste where possible and penalise those who flout the rules. This is imperative for the environment, the economy and public health. Current laws are far too vague when it comes to pollution.

I see my presence in parliament as a pilot project. If I succeed, both the public and candidates will feel more empowered

Meanwhile there is a severe gender imbalance in government. While there are six female MPs and four female cabinet ministers, we are a long way from being equally represented. Earlier this year, there were calls for electoral reforms to ensure at least 20 women sit in the next parliament, to be determined in 2022. Even that is the bare minimum, equivalent to 15 per cent of seats, because of the number of parties opposed to such a move. Women remain hugely under-represented in Lebanon’s political arena.

Change is possible but it is not easy. Activists who are eager to reverse the current political impasse and fight corruption face entrenched political leaders, who hide behind sectarian lines by spreading fear. Unfortunately, at the end of the civil war, sectarian leaders divided powers between themselves and still refuse to relinquish their privileges, at the expense of the state treasury.

After the end of the civil war, former warlords turned to politics but did not have the democratic values nor the experience to lead the country. Warmongers who fought among themselves during the civil war agreed to stop the fighting in return for running the country’s institutions. But they did not try to learn the responsibilities that came with the job, and preferred nepotism and self-interest over other people’s concerns, which led to the widespread corruption we see today.

The recent budget debacle is a great example of the incompetence and lack of statesmanship. You might think that passing a budget is one of the main duties of the cabinet but the government has not passed one for years, to avoid accountability. The state's treasury is drained, the economy is flagging and national debt stands at a record $85 billion. The current proposed budget, which will be soon debated in parliament, is filled with loopholes and hidden costs.

The path for fixing Lebanon is clear but it is not easy. Corruption perpetuated by various sectarian leaders is the main impediment facing Lebanon’s march towards a civic society, where all citizens are protected, regardless of religious or family background.

But I have to confess: it is an uphill battle. Throughout my career as a political talk show host, I witnessed the stagnation in our system. When I entered parliament, I discovered how deep the rot lies. People become demoralised when they don’t have a mechanism to bring about change.

In the midst of this grim picture, I see signs of hope. I am heartened by the sincere and competent activists who volunteer and support my legislative agenda. Some people ask me where I get my energy from. It comes from the young men and women who are trying to build a better future. There is a growing desire among people from all walks of life to take their future in their hands. The level of mistrust in the political class is enormous but I believe if we join efforts and connect with other opposition figures who are not part of the current ruling coalition, we can effect change.

I see my presence in parliament as a pilot project. If I succeed, both the public and candidates will feel more empowered by the 2022 election. More seats would mean faster and more effective reforms.

In my daily interactions, I can feel we are influencing the debate and encouraging people to participate in public life. We need more political participation by informed citizens. No matter what the stakes or the threats – and I am subject to many – we will not relent. Because I am exposing sources of corruption, I have become a lightning rod to a cartel of those with vested interests, who have waged a smear campaign against me. They have questioned my appearance, my wealth and planted fake news to undermine my credibility. But when we are securing our children’s future, this is a small price to pay in a battle that is worth fighting.

Paula Yacoubian is a former television host and the MP for the Beirut 1 district in the Lebanese parliament